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Ali Williams: Refs need support

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Ali Williams: We need to support our referees

77-Test All Black Ali Williams gives his take on today’s referees and how we can support them moving forward in his exclusive RugbyPass column.

We’ve all got our views on the June Test series. Is it beneficial for teams and players? Does the timing work? Is it financially viable? These are all questions that we find ourselves constantly asking after the June series.

We’ve also all got our own views on the referees, with plenty of tough calls being made over the break that could have gone either way.

Let’s look at it in terms of the referee’s position. I personally would ask the question, are we genuinely giving enough support and encouragement to the referees?

From a players’ – or ex-players’ – point of view, I personally don’t think that we have given the referees enough support as the game has moved into the professional era. I think that there are a few paths that we can potentially go down from here in order to better provide that support.

Firstly, we can take a big step back and just let the officials referee what they see, let them understand the game and its momentum. Or, we can go down the same route the likes of cricket, tennis and sailing have gone down, where it’s all about artificial intelligence.

The technology is out there where the referees should literally be able to – in any scenario of the game – take angles and data to say ‘yes, he did tackle him high’ or ‘yes, he did take him off the ground’, as seen with the bowling lines and predictive technology in cricket. Are we able to bring that into the game? If we bring that into the game I don’t have an issue with it. It would be full and final and it would give the referees the support they need.

Upon implementing that, you’re going to attract more referees into the game and that is where they can really focus on the element of protecting kids and making the game safer, which to me is great and I support that angle.

However, I think we’ve also got to weigh up whether we go the other way and just say hold on, we want to keep up with tradition in rugby. The referee’s decision remains final and we accept that he’s going to make some mistakes. He’s going to get some things right and might get a few things wrong or interpret some things differently, but that’s what he sees and at the end of the day, he’s the one with the whistle in his hand.

Of the current crop of referees, I think the guy that handles the game the best is Nigel Owens. Purely because he feels and understands the players’ positions because he has made himself vulnerable in his own personal position.

Before Owens, the guy that really resonated with me was Paddy O’Brien. He understood what was at stake in any given game. Whether it was a Ranfurly Shield challenge, if it was an All Black trial, or if it was an All Blacks Test, he knew what to expect in every scenario and how to handle the heated moments.

I personally would like to know how referees are mandated by World Rugby. As with any job, you are given a certain level of authority. At times it can be tough to determine where that authority lies with our referees.

Are World Rugby asking referees to aid the growth strategy of the game by reffing our game in a manner that will help grow kids’ rugby, grow rugby around the world, and break down some of those barriers to entry around the physical side of the game?

If so, that’s fine, and you can potentially see refereeing heading down that track with where the high tackle law is going, and where punishment for aerial play has gone. It’s clear that we are now geared more towards player safety above all else.

As we have seen over the past few weeks, the stance has been that if someone is in the air, they are vulnerable and we don’t want you to touch them because it can end in disaster.

At present I think it’s actually our referees that are too vulnerable. There’s too much ability for a team, a coach, or a player to come out and say that the ref got it right or wrong.

This would almost be erased if the predictive technology was developed to aid the referee in his decision making.

Take the forward pass rule for example. At this stage, they should literally have a line that shoots out showing the path of the ball. Yes or no. It’s standard, you’ve got your angles and that is it. There are no more questions about it. Media then don’t have to drum up stuff around decisions.

We need to escape the in-between we are stuck in with modern refereeing.

All we are doing right now is making it hard for referees to want to do their jobs.

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Ali Williams: We need to support our referees